South Shields kept their promotion hopes alive on a dramatic night at Mariners Park as they came from behind with an inspired second half performance to beat Buxton.
The Mariners went in at half-time a goal down after an impressive first half performance by the Bucks, but responded instantly to turn the tie on its head.
Jon Shaw and Carl Finnigan netted within a minute of each other to put Shields in front, before defender Tom Dean was sent off for the visitors after two quickfire yellow cards.
Buxton did get back on level terms but Finnigan restored Shields’ advantage and Josh Gillies made the game safe late on as the hosts marched on in front of a jubilant crowd.
They will host Warrington Town in the Evo-Stik Premier Division play-off final on Saturday, and the winners will progress to the super play-off final where they will battle for a promotion place.
Shields made two changes to the team which beat Gainsborough Trinity in the final league game of the season three days earlier, with Nathan Lowe and Finnigan introduced to the starting line-up in place of Phil Turnbull and Gavin Cogdon.
But they almost endured a nightmare start when a first minute corner by Buxton hit the head of Shaw before bouncing against the crossbar.
Buxton were one of the sides to avoid defeat against the Mariners in the league campaign, and they threatened again when Callum Chippendale flicked the ball onto Diego De Girolamo and he drilled an effort wide.
Shields had a number of half-chances but it was the visitors who struck first just before the half-hour mark.
Chippendale’s shot from 20 yards was parried by Liam Connell and pounced on by De Girolamo as he smashed the ball home from close range.
The Mariners built up some momentum in the closing stages of the first half, but the closest they came was a sweet strike from distance by Craig Baxter which went wide.
Shields started the second half like a team possessed, and Buxton goalkeeper Theo Roberts was tested almost immediately by a 25 yard effort from Nathan Lowe.
From the resulting corner, the hosts pulled level as Gillies’ cross was headed against the bar by Dillon Morse before Shaw forced home the rebound.
Less than a minute later, there was pandemonium at Mariners Park as Shields won the ball back and advanced down the left, with Blair Adams delivering an inch-perfect cross which Finnigan turned in from close range.
The Mariners continued to sense blood and almost scored again when Gillies played in Finnigan, who was denied by Roberts.
Buxton had a decent chance to equalise soon after, but Jude Oyibo could only head over after an impressive counter-attack.
Finnigan hit a further shot inches wide at the other end before Buxton were reduced to 10 men after two cynical fouls by Dean within a minute of each other each resulted in yellow cards.
Against the odds, the Bucks levelled things up in the 65th minute as a free-kick from a tight angle on the right of the box by substitute John Pritchard nestled in the net.
Their reprieve was short-lived, though, with Shields soon restoring their advantage when Lee Mason advanced down the right before sending in a dangerous low cross which Finnigan converted at the near post.
The Mariners effectively saw out the rest of the match, with Mason and Gillies going close before the game-clinching goal arrived a minute before the end.
Substitute Gavin Cogdon got in on the left of the box and although his effort was parried by Roberts, it fell to the feet of Gillies, who made no mistake in stroking the ball home from close range.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Adams (Lough 55), Shaw (c), Morse, Briggs, Daly, Lowe (Turnbull 66), Finnigan (Cogdon 79), Mason, Gillies. Subs not used: Mouanda, Foley.
Goals: Shaw (47), Finnigan (47, 71), Gillies (89).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Kev Wilson.
South Shields were forced to settle for a play-off place in the Evo-Stik Premier Division despite beating Gainsborough Trinity with a second half Carl Finnigan goal.
Shields went into the game knowing they would win the league if they won at Gainsborough and relegation-threatened Marine triumphed at Farsley Celtic.
The Mariners kept up their end of the bargain but Farsley ultimately proved too strong for Marine, winning 2-0 to seal the title.
Shields will now face Buxton at Mariners Park on Tuesday in the semi-final of the Evo-Stik Premier Division play-offs.
They knew their final assignment of the regular league season would be a tough one against a Gainsborough side which needed to win to reach the play-offs.
The visitors started in confident mood, though, and almost took the lead early on when Robert Briggs fizzed a 25 yard effort just past the upright.
Blair Adams was also off target with a shot from distance as the Mariners attempted to build some momentum.
The first half saw lots of stoppages and although Shields looked the more dangerous team, Gainsborough did pose the odd threat of their own.
A free-kick from the right was cleared as far as Nathan Stanfield on the edge of the box and he went for the spectacular as he flicked the ball up and fired towards goal on the turn, but it went onto the roof of the net.
Another presentable opportunity fell to Benjamin Hughes, who received the ball in space 20 yards out but skewed his effort wide.
Briggs was off target at the other end as the teams went in at half-time goalless and with all to play for in the second half.
Josh Gillies went close to breaking the deadlock two minutes after the restart, but his free-kick was pushed behind for a corner by home goalkeeper Joseph Green.
Gavin Cogdon also hit a shot over after some good work by Gillies, while at the other end, substitute Alexander Simmons drilled not far wide after a cutback by Benjamin Hughes.
Finnigan was brought on for just his second appearance since recovering from an ankle injury he picked up in January in the 59th minute, and within three minutes of being introduced, he was in the thick of the action.
Luke Daly drove through midfield and slotted in Craig Baxter down the right, and his low cross was slid in at the near post by Finnigan as he notched his 70th goal for the Mariners.
Gillies appeared to grow in stature as the game went on and one excellent run resulted in him going over in the area, but the referee waved away Shields’ penalty appeals.
Liam Connell had a fine game in goal for Shields and he was alert to deny Neil Austin as he hit a strong effort from 25 yards.
Connell also made a superb stop from Hughes late on to preserve his clean sheet.
The Mariners had opportunities to make the points safe, with Finnigan firing over after a brilliant move and substitute Nathan Lowe also missing the target after a pass by Daly.
But they did enough to see out a 1-0 victory which saw them finish second in the league.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Adams, Shaw (c), Morse, Turnbull (Lowe 67), Daly, Briggs, Cogdon (Finnigan 59), Mason (Bell 81), Gillies. Subs not used: Lough, Mouanda.
Goal: Finnigan (62).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Peter Talbot.
Luke Daly scored the winning goal with the last kick of the game as South Shields stayed in the title race with a 3-2 win over Scarborough Athletic on a pulsating afternoon at Mariners Park.
The Mariners had let a two-goal half-time lead – handed to them by a brilliant brace from Lee Mason – slip as play-off chasers Scarborough battled back in the second half.
But with Boro seeking a third goal which would have kept them in contention for the play-offs, they sent goalkeeper Tommy Taylor forward for a stoppage time corner which Shields countered from and scored, with Daly picking the perfect time to net his first goal for the club.
The result saw Shields climb above Warrington Town into second in the Evo-Stik Premier Division table, three points behind leaders Farsley Celtic heading into Saturday’s trip to Gainsborough Trinity, their final match of the season.
The Mariners were backed by their highest crowd of the season, with over 2,000 packing into Mariners Park.
The hosts started on the front foot and zipped the ball about well, with Jon Shaw sending an early header wide and Gavin Cogdon firing a shot into the hands of Taylor after a ball through by Daly.
Shields almost took the lead in the 20th minute when Blair Adams hit an effort which was pushed out by Taylor to the feet of Josh Gillies, but the ball came to him too quickly and ricocheted against his foot before being cleared.
Scarborough fired a warning of their own as they countered and Michael Coulson pulled a shot not far wide from the right of the area.
Midway through the first half, the breakthrough arrived for the Mariners.
Gillies raced away down the right flank and delivered a superb cross onto the right foot of Mason, who steered it home on the volley to score his 13th goal of the season.
Number 14 arrived just eight minutes later after a prolonged spell of Shields dominance which had seen Shaw and Robert Briggs both come close to doubling the lead.
Cogdon pressured Taylor into a hurried clearance and his miscue fell to Mason, who steered a terrific first-time effort into the net from 35 yards as the Mariners were rewarded for an excellent opening half-hour.
They could have made it three on the stroke of half-time, but after driving at the Scarborough defence, Gillies dragged a shot wide.
The Mariners picked up where they left off in the second half and looked certain to score when Gillies raced through on goal, but Taylor closed the angle well to make the save.
Scarborough gave themselves a foothold in the game when the prolific James Walshaw rifled the ball home from the edge of the box to half the deficit.
Boro were visibly lifted by the goal, although the big home crowd was given a lift when Carl Finnigan was introduced from the bench for his first appearance since sustaining an ankle injury in January.
Finnigan made an immediate impact as he played Daly in on goal, but he was denied his first goal for Shields by a superb fingertip stop by Taylor.
Liam Connell made a similarly impressive save soon after at the other end as he tipped a free-kick by Ryan Watson over the bar.
Scarborough were awarded a penalty with 14 minutes remaining following a foul in the box, and Walshaw looked to have given Shields’ title hopes a dagger blow when he rolled the spot-kick home.
He almost made it a hat-trick within two minutes of the equaliser, but his flick cleared the crossbar.
Shields gathered some momentum in the closing stages and Craig Baxter was inches away from giving them the lead in the 90th minute as his 20 yard effort flashed past the post.
They had to wait until the final kick for the vital breakthrough, and what a moment it was.
With Taylor racing back to his goal after going up for a corner, the referee played advantage following a foul on Connor Bell on the halfway line.
Daly picked up the loose ball and brilliantly flicked it past his nearest opponent before dribbling towards the goal-line and finishing from close range to create pandemonium at Mariners Park.
Shields’ title hopes were kept alive – in the most dramatic of circumstances.
SOUTH SHIELDS: Connell, Baxter, Adams, Shaw (c), Morse, Turnbull, Daly, Briggs, Cogdon (Finnigan 64), Mason (Bell 68), Gillies (Foley 78). Subs not used: Brown, Mouanda.
Goals: Mason (22, 30), Daly (90+5).
WORDS: Daniel Prince. IMAGE: Kev Wilson.